As the temperature took a turn for the cold here last week, I prowled through my book collection in search of something that would give me one more deep breath of summer. J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine came out a few months ago, and it’s been waiting patiently for me ever since. Book covers are amazing things. They can hold sixty years of pain and explosive arguments and seething resentment without leaking a drop, and months later, they unleash it and the chill in the air vanishes.
The Kellehers are summer people. Early in their marriage, a lucky bet brought Daniel and Alice Kelleher a cottage and three acres of oceanfront land. Since then, the humble cottage has been joined by a glamorous “big house” and the Kelleher siblings each have their own scheduled month so that they can avoid each other. Four Kelleher women alternate perspectives throughout the novel: Alice, the widowed matriarch, whose devout Catholicism and deep pain manifests itself in coldness toward anyone who gets to know her too well; Kathleen, Alice’s eldest daughter, who left the east coast for California and avoids seeing her mother at all costs; Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, who is on her way to stay at the cottage when her life falls apart; and Ann Marie, married to Alice’s son Pat, a perfectionist who dissolved into motherhood and copes with empty-nest-dom by decorating extravagant dollhouses.
Two motifs snake throughout the book. One is alcoholism; drinking is a minefield of emotion in Maine. Alice and Ann Marie both drink extravagantly at times, and Kathleen is sober after years of alcoholism. Every drink in the book is there for a reason. Another echoing theme is motherhood itself, especially for the characters in the book who often regretted having children. Maggie, in her thirties and considering single parenthood, is a crucible for Alice’s and Kathleen’s ambivalence about motherhood and Ann Marie’s Stepford-Mom experience.
And then there is Maine itself, the land and the houses and the cold ocean water. The Kellehers did not have to scrimp to establish this summer retreat, and yet it is theirs… well, it’s Alice’s, right now, with Daniel gone. Ann Marie feels it should be mostly her family’s, because she and her husband built the big house and have paid for most of the upkeep. Kathleen could care less about it, even though it sheltered her at a time when she needed it most. For Maggie, it will be the place where she makes the most important decision of her life… surrounded by women who cannot speak the truth to each other or themselves.
The book takes its time getting all four women to the beach at once, but when it does, all of Sullivan’s work makes sense. The conversations sound like real conversations between people who have secrets to keep and who have had the same arguments with each other for decades. There is a shorthand in the dialogue that eliminates backstory and cuts right to the surface of what each woman wants and does not want to reveal. When arguments happen in Maine, they’re almost electrifying, especially the insults that issue rapid-fire from the pit of venom beneath Alice’s charming veneer. I love that Maine never fixes what it doesn’t have to; not every wound is healed by the time the book ends, but the resolution is satisfying and honest. I hope you read it, and I hope you don’t wait as long as I did.
(The title of the review is a riff on the quote by Isak Dinesen: “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”)